The World that was Ours by Hilda Bernstein

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ClassicCoverNonfiction — print. Persephone books, 2009. Originally published 1967. 394 pgs. Purchased.

Nelson Mandela spent nearly 28 years in prison – 18 years of which were spent on Robben Island – as a result of the Rivonia Trial, which charged him and seven other men with 221 acts of sabotage designed to encourage violent revolution in apartheid South Africa. Among his seven codefendants were Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, a white man with allegiances to the banned Communist Party and the goal of upending apartheid in South Africa.

In The World that was Ours, Rusty’s wife Hilda recounts her own commitment to her husband’s causes and the impact their efforts and Rusty’s subsequent arrest had on both their four children and the stability of the regime.

The Rivonia Trial was a confrontation in which the opposing forces in South Africa appeared face to face; those who stood for apartheid, who defended and protected the apartheid State; and those who opposed it. The court was an ultimate court of morality; the issues were not the guilt of the accused, but the guilt or innocence of those who opposed apartheid.

On one side was the state with its deep Calvinist roots asserting the unchanging nature of man and race, of man created immediately and in his present form, rejection evolution, adhering to belief in the rigid and unalterable patterns of human behavior; fixed laws, the virtues of obedience, attainment as related to heredity not environment. On the other side: the vision of man as endowed with creative and developing gifts, the ability to learn and change; free-developing, self-fulfilling man, black and non-black. (pg. 184-185)

Without Persephone Books choosing to publish this memoir, I doubt I would have stumbled across Hilda’s story on my own. I, of course, know who Nelson Mandela was and his importance in ending the system of apartheid in South Africa, but the details of his conviction were lost in the good versus bad presentation of South African history that I experienced in school. (I, shamefully, didn’t even know he had codefendants in the case that led to his life sentence.)

Although Hilda presents the trial in its entirety, much of her memoir is dedicated to detailing how laws passed by the ruling party impacted her domestic life. She and her husband lived under the constant threat of arrest, and her husband lived under house arrest prior to his 1963 arrest, which squeezed their bottom line as he struggled to oversee building sites as an architect. The family existed at times on Hilda’s writings for foreign newspapers; something she was explicitly banned from doing by the regime and had to be careful to hide.

Rusty’s house arrest also meant he could not be present when friends came by the home, even if the visitors were friends of their four children. This put a particular strain on their children, especially since the police could raid the family home at any time and few parents wanted their children to associate with the Bernsteins as a result.

(Of course, as a white woman, Hilda possessed a certain level of privilege despite the police’s threats against her family. She tries her best to shed light on the experience of their non-white friends and associates. But certain elements of the apartheid regime where kept from her, and I appreciate her efforts to reminder readers of this throughout the memoir, which was originally published in 1967.)

For me, her focus on the domestic side of life drives home how difficult it was for her and her husband to walk the ever-evolving legal tightrope set forth by an anxious, dictatorial regime. It also helps illuminate the difficult moral questions that she, her husband, and others in their movement had to walk. How can you put your children in danger? But, then again, how can you leave them to grow up in an unjust society?

Hilda’s memoir is engaging, moving, and accessible, and I am so pleased that Persephone chose to republish it and bring it to my attention. My only quibble with the entire book was a decision on the publisher’s part to compile the footnotes at the end of the memoir rather than placing them at the bottom of the page. I found it cumbersome to flip to the back each time, particularly because it interrupted the flow of my reading.

That said, Hilda Bernstein has another seven books to her name that I hope to track down so as to learn more about this fascinating woman and her life in South Africa. (And, now, I have yet another reminder that I really need to read Nelson Mandela’s memoir, too!)

Hilda Bernstein’s memoir was reissued as part of the Persephone Classics collection, which presents twelve of Persephone Books’ bestsellers in more ‘bookshop-friendly’ editions (i.e. with pictures on the front). The endpaper in these editions are printed in greyscale, so the sample of a mid-1960s fabric designed in South Africa for manufacture in Belfast by Courtauld’s is presented without the fabric’s blues and yellows.

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